Three years ago, Top Shelf Productions released the first volume of The Surrogates, an enjoyable melange of science fiction, police procedural, noir and social novel. Taking place in the year 2054, it presents a future in which residents of the Central Georgia Metropolis live through their surrogates (humanoid robots that individuals control through their own homes). Among these residents is detective Harvey Greer, who seeks a lightning-throwing terrorist who seeks to remove humanity from their surrogates.
The cover flap of my copy of the first volume describes Robert Venditti's and Brett Weldele's graphic novel as a mixture of William Gibson and Philip K. Dick, which is easy to see, though it also possesses elements of James Tiptree, Ed McBain and Tom Wolfe.
Now Venditti and Weldele have completed a second volume, taking place fourteen years prior to the events of the first graphic novel—specifically, during the build-up to the anti-surrogate riots referred to in the first volume. The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone opens in a downtown alley in Central Georgia Metropolis one summer evening in 2039. Four teenage boys take their parents' surrogates joyriding and encounter Zachary Hays, a homeless man drinking from a wine bottle he found in a trash can. The boys harass him and, after Hays throws his bottle at one, wind up beating him to death.
Greer, in this volume a patrolman, helps investigate the altercation, and learns that a low level street informer nicknamed Chattie witnessed the crime. Review of the skin samples left by one of the surrogates leads Greer and detective Vincent McEvoy to Wyatt Newcomb, the surrogates' owner. McEvoy and Greer arrest Newcomb, though it becomes obvious to them that Newcomb is protecting his son.
Nonetheless, tension mounts in Central Georgia Metropolis, as a man known only as The Prophet, the leader of a religious organization that seeks to abolish humanity's use of surrogates, seeks justice for Hays's death. As Chattie's testimony becomes the key point in the case against Newcomb's son, Chattie disappears, becoming the object of a hunt between the Prophet's congregation, Greer and Newcomb's lawyer Everett Sloan. And the murder becomes a major issue for Virtual Self, Inc., who must determine what to do with their youth line of surrogates in light of potential consumer backlash.
As with the first volume, Flesh and Blone makes good use of its police procedure format while still making the science fiction element of its tale integral to its storyline. As in the first volume, the science fiction elements are kept to a minimum, allowing Venditti to concentrate on his characters. As this is a prequel, the characters become all the more poignant, because the reader knows what will happen to them fifteen years later.
Greer's first encounter with his wife's surrogate might well be the reaction one would expect of most people, yet it is tinged with sadness because of the relationship readers witness in the first volume. This is also true of Lionel Canter, whose motives become all too clear.
In addition, because surrogates are not as widespread in this tale, Venditti offers moments of humor oddly absent from the first volume. As the anti-surrogate riots begin, Greer checks on his wife via a department-issued surrogate in the guise of a black man. During the riots, he uses the surrogate of a blond woman to hold off mobs led by the Prophet. All of this makes for entertaining reading, yet it does not quite possess the same sublime pleasures as the first volume, if only because it lacks some of that's volume's ingenuity.
The social commentary is much more obvious than in the first volume, but it does not make this story any less interesting. Indeed, as a social novel in the vein of The Bonfire of the Vanities, the bond between Flesh and Bone and Wolfe's classic are much stronger than expected. When Newcomb tells Everett that opportunists are not interested in opportunity, but “want only the payoff that opportunity brings,” one can read his words as coming from Wolfe himself.
The machinations between the mayor, Newcomb and the Prophet only invite comparison. However, Venditti's graphic novel benefits from being a much leaner, more tightly plotted work, in the vein of the best police procedurals. In addition, Brett Weldele's artwork exhibits the same economy as the story itself, using mostly colored shading rather than detailed inkwork.
Flesh and Bone deepens and broadens the world first visited in The Surrogates. One finishes its epilogue already anticipating the third volume.
Check out our Baker's Dozen interview with creators Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele.